Nicaragua's Sandinista leadership, like a motorist lost on a country highway, is still trying to find its way.
Stumbling in fits and starts, the nearly three-year-old government of Marxist-leaning guerrillas-turned-governors has yet to define itself.
Although the promised twin goals of a pluralistic society and a mixed economy are stubbornly clung to, there are signs that both goals are slipping further from reach. It may be too late to rescue either.
Some here say Nicaragua has already edged into the Soviet orbit and is little different from Cuba. That judgment is probably premature. But the Sandinistas have certainly managed to alienate a growing number of their former supporters.
The Marxist tone of both their rhetoric and actions have driven many Nicaraguans into opposition. Many longtime Nicaragua observers believe the Sandinistas have lost the majority support that they enjoyed when they came to power in July 1979. By their own admission, the Sandinistas themselves worry about a drop-off of popular backing.
Two factors underlying the sliding support for the government are Nicaragua's staggering economic problems and the Sandinistas' own uncertainty on how to deal with them.
The poor shape of the economy perhaps is not surprising, given the horrendous effects of the 18-month civil war that preceded the Sandinista triumph over the late dictator Anastasio Somoza Debayle. The war shattered the economy. Some 50, 000 people were killed and 150,000 were wounded. More than half a million persons were left homeless. Thirty percent of industry was destroyed, another 30 percent was badly damaged, and virtually no money remained in the till.
That alone would be sufficient reason for economic trauma. But beyond the legacy of the civil war, the Sandinistas have created problems for themselves.
In the first place, their rhetoric has tended to run away with itself. It has discouraged many Nicaraguan businessmen from reinvesting, and it has created anxiety among foreign governments and potential foreign private investors, many of whom might otherwise be disposed toward supporting the Sandinistas.
Sandinista rhetoric is often ''steamy,'' as one foreign diplomat noted. There are statements about hanging opponents from tree branches and angry denunciations of opponents as fascists. Many of those who are so denounced were active allies of the Sandinistas during the civil war.
This type of rhetoric sparked a large-scale flight of capital, perhaps $500 million worth, in 1980 and 1981. The dollar flight, although now somewhat stanched, continues. And there has been no significant new domestic investment.
Neither is there much new foreign investment. A continuing infusion of international credits, some $400 million yearly, has helped the Sandinistas weather a number of temporary crises. But the credits have failed to get the economy moving.
Complicating the problem is the very nature of the government structure.
The Sandinistas rule by committee -- in effect, through a nine-member board of directors, known as the Sandinista directorate. It is composed of nine men widely viewed as well-meaning idealists who are genuinely concerned about the Nicaraguan people. But in the view of even sympathetic observers here, that concern has not translated itself into effective leadership.
The nine men -- all former guerrilla commanders and self-proclaimed Marxists -- have maintained a unity that surprises almost everyone. That unity is undoubtedly their most important asset.
Without it, ''there would be virtual chaos here,'' comments a West European diplomat who looks sympathetically on the Sandinistas. But he goes on to speak rather paternalistically about ''their youthful idealism mixed with little practical governing experience.''
By now, the Sandinistas have had nearly three years of on-the-job training. Some of their governmental departments get high marks. The Ministry of Agriculture, headed by Jaime Wheelock Roman, is widely viewed as perhaps the most efficient.
Not far behind would be Henry Ruiz Hernandez's Ministry of Planning, although its Marxist ideological tone has pitted it against the more practical Economy Ministry in a bitter behind-the-scenes rivalry.
One of the problems facing the Sandinistas, which seems almost to defy correction, is lack of coordination between the governmental departments. And even among the nine members of the directorate, there are instances of lack of liaison. One directorate member may announce a policy that is considerably different, even inconsistent, with one being announced by another member.
But perhaps the biggest problem that the Sandinistas face has to do with the United States. Sandinista attitudes, shaped certainly by Nicaraguan history and the tragic story of earlier US interventions, has led them to alienate Washington. At the same time, the US has taken steps that, in the Sandinista view, are warlike and harmful to Nicaragua.
People at the highest levels here are genuinely concerned that the US may be on the verge of invading Nicaragua. Border incursions by irregular forces operating from Honduras occur daily. Just this past week, two similar incursions from Costa Rica have been reported.
Daniel Ortega Saavedra, one of the top nine Sandinistas, flatly says the US is ''about ready to take action against us.'' He points to joint US-Honduran military training exercises.
Do the Sandinistas really believe a US invasion is likely?
A week of talking to many of them tends to convince this reporter that their concern about US actions is genuine. It is prompted in part by rhetoric from Washington and particularly the statements of United Nations Ambassador Jeane Kirkpatrick. It is also prompted by the US aid cut off more than a year ago -- an action seen by Sergio Ramirez Mercado, a member of the three-man governing junta, as ''warlike.''
When it is suggested to these leaders that the US aid cutoff springs from Washington's belief that Nicaragua was providing arms, ammunition, and other supplies to leftist Salvadoran guerrillas, the Sandinistas disclaim such actions. But they admit their sympathies lie with the guerrillas.
What of Washington's proffered ''proof'' of Nicaraguan complicity in the arms flow to El Salvador?
''A pack of lies,'' scoffs one top Sandinista leader who, at this point in an interview, said, ''We will go off the record.''
Against this background of verbal warfare with Washington, declining public support, a sagging economy, and an idealistic but somewhat chaotic leadership, can Nicaragua reach even in a degree those Sandinista goals of political and economic pluralism?
The final report card is not in. But at this midterm point, the answer that more and more observers here give is a negative one.
Top Sandinista leaders can talk for several hours without mentioning either Marxism or Cuba -- but the political and economic appeal of both is there. Nicaragua's foreign policy increasingly aligns itself with Cuba and the socialist bloc.
The pressures on the business community here -- largely middle class -- continue to grow as the economy sags. With declining public support, pressure for restrictive measures -- such as the recently imposed state of emergency suspending constitutional guarantees -- could grow.
Still, Sandinista commander Tomas Borge Martinez said flatly last week: ''Nothing will deter us from maintaining political pluralism and a mixed economy , no matter what the cost. And this promise is not rhetoric.''
Such attitudes continue to give a glimmer of hope to a Nicaragua that is otherwise darkened by clouds of gloom and uncertainty.